Looking for Queer Girls on the Shelves

I was a library fugitive. In elementary school I lost a few library books, and instead of telling anyone, I hid the notices and avoided the public library for most of my adolescent years. I read voraciously from the shelves of my school libraries, but as a self-sufficient grazer, I never had a strong relationship with my school librarians. By junior high many of my books came from a used bookstore in town or from my mother’s shelves. I found authors like Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Pat Conroy, who would leave a lifelong imprint on me as a person and as a writer. I read a few books that depicted relationships between women — most memorably The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher, thrilling in my discovery that there were old lesbians who were happy in their lives; and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which showed that relationships between women could be complicated and beautiful, even in the midst of pain, and that some women loved both women and men. But neither of these stories felt even remotely close to my life. And because no one was curating my reading, I largely missed out on the coming-of-age stories that would have been useful and welcome to me in my own coming of age — those that focused on the lives and experiences of young queer girls.

It’s true that I may not have been missing much in those years. Often with books of that era, the young queer character, or someone close them, had to die (car crashes were popular), or at least suffer violence or retribution. The message for readers was clear: being gay or lesbian equaled suffering and death. But Nancy Garden’s 1982 novel Annie on My Mind was a much-needed leap forward, in that two girls fell in love without death or dismemberment, and their love survived the novel’s end. Even with its not-completely-happy ending, it would have offered the young me hope.

Young people’s literature featuring LGBTQ+ characters has gone through an evolution of sorts: from those earliest novels that featured cisgender gay and lesbian characters facing tragic lives and painful consequences, to coming-out stories that focused mainly on the sadness and loss associated with coming out, to welcome, less-tragic coming-out stories, to — finally! — stories in which the character’s sexual identity does not drive the plot and that even celebrate queer experiences. Compared to novels for young people featuring male queer characters, it has felt like novels featuring queer girls have lagged behind somewhat, often stuck in the tragedy and sadness of queerness. But the last two years, especially, have seen a bit of a girls-loving-girls boom in young people’s literature, including more intersectional queer identities, more stories written specifically by queer women for queer girl readers, more stories in which the plot is not driven by the characters’ queerness, and more stories marked by lightness and humor. That’s not to say that today’s readers don’t still need coming-out stories. But teen and tween readers need modern versions that relate to the experiences and lives of today’s teens, not versions that mirror the author’s experiences ten, fifteen, or even twenty years ago.

Even in the most conservative pockets of America, coming out and dealing with homophobia are different today than in the past. In last year’s Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown, Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years. She also happens to be a practicing Christian whose faith is not a source of confusion or anguish, and whose radio-evangelist father has been supportive of who she is. But when Joanna’s father remarries, he moves Jo from Atlanta to a small town where his homophobic in-laws live, and he asks Jo to go back into the closet for her senior year. Jo agrees, in exchange for an epic post-graduation road trip and for her own radio show for teens, one which Jo hopes to use to launch her own ministry to help LGBTQ+ kids of faith and to spread acceptance among Christians for queer teens. Passing as straight does have its advantages, but a budding romance with popular Mary Carlson Bailey complicates Jo’s plans. Mary Carlson is eager to fling open the closet door and shout with pride for all to hear. Jo finds herself in the dishonest position of pretending she is just discovering her sexuality and not ready to be out. The story provides a modern and nuanced look at the pressures today’s teens may feel in more conservative towns and the conflicts unique to queer relationships when one partner is more ready to be out than the other. And while it doesn’t shy away from the ways in which religious text and teachings can be used to justify homophobia, it also offers a glimpse into the possibility of finding warmth and acceptance in more conservative and religious communities.

In Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard, Pen is very clear on who she is, but some think she is dressing and acting like a boy, or that she wants to be one. Adding to the conflicts, her conservative Portuguese-immigrant parents equate her failure to dress more traditionally feminine with a lack of respect, and her best friend demands unquestioning loyalty but disregards what Pen needs. In addition to exploring the thoughts and experiences of a butch lesbian navigating a gender-obsessed society and a conservative family, Girl Mans Up also features a caring sibling relationship, a well-drawn lesbian romance, and Pen’s growth toward healthy independence.

It’s also refreshing to see books like Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee, an entertaining, campy superhero story for teen readers, featuring a bisexual teen girl, Jessica Tran, who is the only member of her family without superpowers. An internship with a cutting-edge tech company allows Jess to work closely with her longtime crush Abby. But could it also mean Jess is working for her super-parents’ evil nemeses Master and Mistress Mischief? While the superhero story drives the action, the romantic subplot follows Jess’s crush on the athletic, smart Abby as it blossoms from distant attraction to friendship to sweet romance, with a happy-couple ending. Within this deceptively light story, however, Lee is able to explore some serious and contemporary themes. Jess is completely comfortable in her bisexuality and, in the futuristic setting, it seems no more noteworthy than if she were straight, but Jess struggles some with her cultural identity as the child of Chinese and Vietnamese refugees. Plot questions about who is a hero and who is a villain, and how news stories and “history” can be manipulated by those with power, could serve as catalysts for discussion about our contemporary world. Most important, the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters are interesting and avoid stereotype, and all face conflicts and complications that have nothing to do with their gender or sexual identities.

We also need contemporary novels about self-discovery for readers younger than some adults expect. I’m especially excited by this year’s Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, a middle-grade novel featuring a girl experiencing her first crush on another girl. Twelve-year-old Mattie is excited that the eighth-grade play will be Romeo and Juliet. Mattie earns a small part, happy to watch newcomer Gemma, whom she has a slight crush on, shine as Juliet. But when the would-be Romeo proves unequal to the task, director Mr. Torres asks Mattie to step into the role — and she finds herself really falling for Gemma. (Despite some initial upset over the casting by popular-crowd-ruling Willow, there is little controversy surrounding Mattie playing the lead love interest, which may be a little wishful thinking, but nice modeling nonetheless.) Subplots related to friendships and loyalties — along with narrative and structural parallels to Romeo and Juliet — add interest, but it is the growing friendship and attraction between Mattie and Gemma that really sets the book apart. While I read Mattie as a young lesbian just coming out to herself, others might read her as bisexual/pansexual or questioning, and that open interpretation makes it an especially great novel for intermediate and middle-school readers who themselves might just be starting to explore how they feel. Too often today’s tweens and teens may feel pressure to think of their sexual identities in definitive terms before they’re ready, making Mattie’s comfort with saying she isn’t sure if she still likes boys but she knows she likes this one girl all the more resonant.

Even with all of this hopeful progress, this is just the beginning. We need many more books for tween readers that explore that questioning and questing time when many girls first begin to realize or contemplate acting on their attraction for other girls. Just as we need many more books for teen readers that explore intersectional queer identities — queer women of color (most especially African American and First/Native Nations queer girls, and “own voices” versions of these stories), queer women who practice faiths other than Christianity, queer women with disabilities, queer girls who are working class or poor, asexual girls and queer girls who are transgender — especially books with characters for whom being queer is not the primary plot conflict and in settings other than blandly privileged suburban or urban environments. Perhaps most importantly, we need to continue to publish more young adult novels written specifically for young queer readers, books that may resonate with straight readers but that speak to and are infused with the lived experiences of queer people and the social and cultural circles in which queer teens exist. Our young queer and questioning readers deserve more of and from the stories we are publishing about their lives, in quantity, in quality, and in representation. And please, let us see more humor, more light, more hope for our young queer girls.

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

E. M. Kokie
E. M. Kokie
E. M. Kokie is the author of the young adult novels Radical and Personal Effects (both Candlewick); she has contributed short stories to the anthologies Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick) and Violent Ends (Simon Pulse). She can be found online at emkokie.com and tweets as @EMKokie.

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